Negative political campaigning has long been a staple of American politics, and now, with the advent of Super PACs, it is being taken to a whole new level. According to The Washington Post, as of May 20, campaign spending by candidates and Super PACs had already totaled $138.6 million, and 68 percent of that has been negative.
Mitt Romney demonstrated during the primary that he was quite willing to use negative advertising to pummel his opponents. According to The Washington Post, 77 percent (down from 91 percent in late April) of the spending by Romney's Super PAC "Restore Our Future," or just over $27 million, has been used on negative advertising. The Romney campaign itself has spent $7.6 million, or 54 percent of its total, on negative advertising.
Four other Republican-leaning Super PACs have spent a combined $36.9 million on advertising, with 100 percent of their spending being negative.
President Obama's Super PAC "Priorities USA Action," by contrast, has spent $1.4 million, or 69 percent of its total, on negative advertising. The Obama campaign itself has spent $2.7 million, or 21 percent of its total, on negative advertising. Both campaigns will undoubtedly spend many more millions on negative advertising during the general election campaign.
Mitt Romney has also used personal appearances as opportunities to tear down the Obama administration. Just before launching his campaign in May 2011, he said on the Today show that Obama has "been one of the most ineffective presidents at the job at hand that I've ever seen." He later followed that up by saying that Obama's presidency has "failed." Ever since then, Mitt Romney has been unrelenting with this and similar messages.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner had a similarly damning message during a recent appearance on Fox News, when he said, "America can't live for four more years with Barack Obama as president. His policies will turn America in a direction that we may never recover from." Negative messages such as this have been coming from Republicans ever since President Obama took office.
Is all of this negativity a problem?
When candidates use negative advertising, we see it as unfair. They are competing not by trumpeting their own merits but by undermining their competition. And if one candidate has more money than his competition, as Mitt Romney did during the primaries, it just doesn't seem right. It feels like cheating.
It is also very unbecoming of candidates for high office to be negative. Imagine a candidate for the job of CEO at a major American corporation trying to undermine other candidates during the interview process. It would be unthinkable. Everyone knows that one of the cardinal rules of interviewing is to be positive. We associate negativity with failure and incompetence rather than with building, leading, and inspiring. And when someone is negative, there can be little doubt that he will be very difficult to work with, and a nightmare to work for. Being negative and being a leader are simply incompatible.
But the problems with negative campaigning run much deeper.
As anyone involved in marketing or advertising knows, with repeated exposure, people tend to accept a message as fact. In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney's strategy, and the Republican strategy in general, has been to take advantage of this by bashing President Obama relentlessly ever since he took office. The American people have been exposed to a continuous stream of messages saying that "Obama is a bad guy," "Obama is a horrible president," and "Obama is a failure." According to The Washington Post, during this election cycle $66.9 million has been spent so far on ads with an "Anti-Obama Message." Naturally, over time many people will come to believe that Obama is indeed a failure. Since most people have no first-hand knowledge of his actions, it is hard to imagine how it could be otherwise.
Of course, negative campaigning isn't isolated to this campaign, or to the race for president in general; it's common in political campaigns across America. We are bombarded with messages telling us that candidates, politicians, and even the government are corrupt, incompetent failures. Candidates say this about their competitors, politicians say it about the opposing party, and special-interest groups pour money into Super PACs that run advertisements saying it about any politician opposing their agenda. Candidates seeking elected office for the first time almost universally justify their own election by saying the existing government is broken and that change is needed. Messages damning our government are practically beaten into us.
Negative campaigning prevents many good candidates from entering politics and leaves us with candidates who are comfortable with conflict. Government becomes populated with people who are primed for conflict, which causes deadlocks and paralysis, making the government less able to do the work of the people. This in turn leads to less support by the public, more negative campaigning, and fewer good candidates. It is a spiral of destruction.
Elections have become events where billions of dollars are spent bludgeoning the government and the people in it and undermining its legitimacy. Is it any surprise that opinion polls consistently show that Americans have little confidence in the government or in the people running it? Is it any wonder that bashing the government has become a favorite national pastime?
This is an extremely serious problem. How can a government be effective if it doesn't have the support of the people? How can our country be successful if our government is undermined? How can you or I be successful in a weak country?
Why do politicians engage in negative campaigning?
As political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar wrote in their book Going Negative, "voters tend to be risk-averse and prefer candidates who are perceived to have fewer negative attributes." It is much easier for a candidate to create doubts about his opponent than it is for him to prove his own self-worth. Negative campaigns are often targeted at an opponent's likely supporters in an attempt to embitter them toward the candidate so that they don't turn out to vote. In cases where small changes in turnout can affect the outcome of the election, this strategy can be very effective.
Why does negative campaigning work?
Surveys have consistently found that most people know very little about politics. Only about two thirds of people surveyed can name their state's governor. About half know that there are two U.S. senators from their state, and less than half can name their congressman/woman. And only about one in 10 people knows how their congressman/woman voted on any particular bill.
If people know so little about these critical, high-level facts, their detailed knowledge about candidates must be near zero!
When we are uninformed and have no first-hand knowledge about something, we are easily influenced.
Mitt Romney can call President Obama a failure because he knows that few people know the facts or can make an informed judgment themselves. He, and whoever else wants to influence elections and the government, can say almost whatever they want and most people have no way of knowing otherwise. Americans are sitting ducks for political propaganda.
To understand why this is a problem, it helps to put things into perspective.
Consider the process successful businesses use when hiring new executives. They conduct multiple interviews and engage in in-depth questioning, they often give candidates tests, and they speak with numerous references. It is a very rigorous process. This is what is necessary in order to truly understand candidates so that good hiring decisions can be made.
The process we use to hire government leaders in our "democracy" is the polar opposite of this. Only a tiny percentage of people vote in primary elections. Then, in general elections, millions of people, most of whom are politically uninformed, go to the polls and cast votes for a long list of candidates. Most people simply vote according to their preferred party, so they don't really make a choice at all.
Our "democracy" assumes that every citizen will know an extraordinary amount about politics and candidates, and that everyone will vote -- but they don't.
Could it be that our expectations for people are unrealistic? Could we all be victims of a poorly designed democratic system?
Could this be the root problem with our government, with all other problems in government and many in our society stemming from this?
The Framers of our Constitution never intended our democracy to operate the way that it does. They feared mass democracy and went to great lengths to avoid it when writing our Constitution. Our system of democracy is the way it is not because anyone designed it that way, but because of a series of ill-considered, incremental reforms.
Our country has grown and changed enormously since our Constitution was ratified, and we have learned an enormous amount about people, organizations, and government since then. Could it be that the time has come to rethink democracy once again?
Consider this: Businesses are our best model for organizing large numbers of people, because competitive pressures force them to be efficient.
In large corporations, CEOs don't try to manage all their employees themselves; rather, they break up responsibilities into manageable chunks and delegate them to managers. Managers are arranged in layers, creating a hierarchy that forms an organization. Everyone in the organization is accountable to a manager, and ultimately to the CEO. The CEO is able to achieve business goals by working through a small number of top managers, thereby managing the entire organization. Corporations can consist of millions of people and be successful because they are organized this way.
Our country consists of millions of people, and it is clearly impractical for each citizen to be responsible for hiring and managing each of their representatives themselves. Might democracy work better if citizens delegated their political responsibilities more effectively so that democracy could operate like an organization?
This would mean that citizens, rather than electing a wide range of representatives for various offices, would only elect a single representative that is close to them, and delegate all political responsibility to that representative. This representative, along with all other representatives or office holders, would then be placed in a hierarchy, with each level in the hierarchy being elected/hired by the level below it. Citizens would be linked to the government via a chain of connected representatives.
This would require small election districts, which we will call communities. Citizens would be members of a community, and the representative they elect would be their community representative. In small communities, people would be able to know their representative personally, make good voting decisions, and hold their representative accountable for the results he or she produces throughout his or her term in office. With similarly small ratios throughout the hierarchy, representatives at each level could be held accountable by the level below them, and ultimately by the people.
People would participate in democracy primarily by participating in community meetings. They could present issues they are concerned about, and issues that are supported by the community would be pursued at the next level of government by their community representative. This process would be repeated at each level, and issues that are supported would rise to the top and become policy. This would allow citizens to set the agenda of all representatives and hold them accountable for the results they produce, much like a CEO does in a business. Such a process would allow people to manage the government.
With all elections taking place in small groups of connected people, there would be no place for negativity or propaganda, for the same reasons that there is no place for these things in a business. Candidates would likely already be known to everyone in the group, creating an ideal hiring situation. In addition, people would not be given the unrealistic responsibility of being informed about numerous candidates, numerous issues, and the actions of a distant government, just as the CEO of a corporation is not responsible for personally managing every employee in the corporation.
We have thought such a system of democracy through, and we believe that, because it addresses the root problem with democracy, it has the potential to eliminate all the problems in our government and many in our society. We call this system Local Electors, which is also the name we've given to the community representatives.
It is useful to remember something Albert Einstein once said: "The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking."
Learn more about the Local Electors system at localelectors.org.